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Mother's Day: A 30-Year-Old Grandmother's Story

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Motherhood is changing for millions of women in our rapidly urbanising world.

I recently met Barkha, a 30-year-old grandma in Mangolpuri slum in Delhi. Her own mother married at nine, she married at 13, became a Mum at 14 and never went to school. Both her daughters got an education. Her first daughter continued the family tradition was married at 16 and immediately became pregnant with twins.

As pregnancy is a leading cause of death for girls between 15 and 19, Barkha was - rightly - worried. Her daughter and baby survived, but at the cost of bills for transport and medicine this labourer's family can ill afford. And now Barkha is resisting family pressure to marry off her second daughter who is 15. "I want her to be educated, to be a teacher and not to run the risks to her health".

The other 20 or so women in her parents group at the Plan supported health centre agree. The world is changing says Sashi, gesticulating a mobile phone in hand, "We used to live in villages but when we moved here these old traditions had to stop". And their sons and daughters who are being trained as health educators by Plan agree. Neelam, aged 17, told me, "Last year my parents were taking me out of school to get married but it was explained that after being educated, I would be able to earn our bread and butter and bring honour to our family so I am now doing my exams".

Today across the world, 10 million girls are still being coaxed or coerced to get married too young - and therefore drop-out of school.

But all this, thankfully, is changing for three main reasons.

- Urbanisation:
Fewer girls within cities get married young. Plan's research in Ethiopia among 10 to 19-year-olds who have migrated to Addis, shows that 1 in 4 of them did so to escape early marriage.

- Leadership at community level:
Groups of women and young people like those in Mangolpuri are persuading their families to drop the practice and campaigning locally against early marriage. Government and UN level leaders such as The Elders are condemning the traditional cultural practice of early marriage.

- Governments:
They're starting to understand that growth is linked to girls achieving in school and more and more are passing laws against child marriage like India.

Plan's 75 years of experience of working with children - now in 66 countries with 67 million children - has shown us the five steps to stopping early and forced marriages.

The first step is to find an alternative for girls - education and ways to earn a living. Second, we need to open a safe space in communities to have this discussion. Engage men and boys but also community and religious leaders. This approach led to leaders in Egypt stopping early forced marriages and successfully lobbying to outlaw marriage under 18. In Bangladesh for example, concerted work over six years has led whole villages to declare themselves child marriage free.

Step three would be to remove the incentives for child marriage. We talked to fathers in Punjab about the ideal age of marriage for their girls. The said mid-20s - but what's the actual age? 13 to 15 years old. Why? Poverty. So we need to look at other income sources for the families.

Then there's the enforcement of law - the UK government is consulting on whether there should be a criminal penalty for forcing someone into marriage. That may be necessary but it is not sufficient.

The best solution is to avoid the trauma of a forced marriage too young. That's why step five is prevention. I met 15-year-old Dia from Northern Bangladesh last September, who came home from school one day to be told that she was not to go to school next term because she was to get married.

She asked her teacher to intercede as the next week she would be sitting her end of term exams - she knew her future hung in the balance.

At that moment her teacher, community leaders and the District Commissioner were meeting with her parents. Their arguments succeeded and the wedding was called off. They were acting to safeguard the girl.

Sadly in the UK there is limited guidance for teachers on how to handle forced marriage. And the former Dept of Children Schools and Famillies estimated that there are 5,000 forced marriages each year in the UK. That is why Plan has produced a teaching aid for UK schools - but we need the UK government to encourage schools to use it, so we can prevent early and forced marriage - as Dia's community do and as Bhakra is striving to protect her daughter from.

Now that would be a good commitment for the UK government on this Mother's Day.

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